Is it possible to get lunch in Chicago for $3.49? That was the question I sought to answer on Friday at Annapurna, an Indian vegetarian restaurant on Devon Avenue, in the heart of Chicago’s largest South Asian neighborhood. Whenever I need a quick trip to a foreign country but can’t make it to O’Hare, I gravitate to one of my two favorite ethnic enclaves in Chicago: the Arab corridor of Albany Park, on Kedzie Avenue between Wilson and Lawrence, or the South Asian section of West Rogers Park, on Devon Avenue near Western.
Devon Avenue is filled with exotic delights: women wearing the niqab, men in the traditional shalwar kameez, sari shops, Hajj travel agencies, and endearingly bizarre little shops like the House of 220 Volt Appliances, which sells ridiculously large suitcases, tiny little microwaves and everything in between. On one side of the street, a storefront advertises Islamic mortgages right across the street from Gandhi Electronics. On the subcontinent, India and Pakistan are geopolitical adversaries, but on Devon Avenue, Indian and Pakistani immigrants coexist peacefully, even if in parallel universes.
I’ve been eating at the Indian and Pakistani restaurants on Devon Avenue for years but, as a devoted carnivore who is addicted to dishes like Butter Chicken, Vindaloo and Korma, I’ve never been tempted to try any of the street’s vegetarian restaurants until I saw a sign outside Annapurna advertising a $3.49 lunch special. I’m a bargain hunter – in Virginia, I used to patronize a Korean beauty school for $5 haircuts, and I’m not put off by a language barrier.
But I have an above average appetite, so I was skeptical that a three-dollar meal at a vegetarian restaurant would leave me feeling satisfied. Nonetheless, the price was irresistible, so my wife and I tried the place for lunch on Friday.
Annapurna’s décor is surprisingly smart for a place whose menu is filled with items that cost less than four bucks. But it is indeed like going out to eat in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and have no idea what to order. There are no descriptions of any of the items on the menu and we were the only gringo diners on a day when the place was packed with Indian regulars who knew the menu well and didn’t need to ask questions.
I knew I was going to try the dirt-cheap lunch special, but wanted to ask some questions about what we were ordering and some of the other menu items, but the stern-faced, attractive woman working the counter seemed less than eager to talk to us about the menu.
The lunch special changes each day. The Friday special is masala rice and curry soup, and it comes with a glass of buttermilk, chilies, and a small tomato, onion and cilantro salad in a plastic container. The rice dish was nicely spiced and came with potatoes and onions mixed in it. The soup was very sweet and tasted a bit like coconut to me, though the woman at the counter said it was made with yogurt. Either way, I thought that both dishes were delicious, though my wife thought the soup was “peculiar.”
But we both agreed that the buttermilk, on the other hand, was revolting (see video). It was lukewarm, salty and intensely sour. The look on my face when I took a gulp of the stuff would have made for an entertaining passport photo. Still, I felt satisfied – not stuffed, but content – and we had spent a total of $7.66 for two meals, including tax. You can’t get one meal at Panera for that price, let alone two.
I’d had enough to eat, but in the spirit of adventure and gluttony, we decided to split one more dish, a chickpea-based dish called chole bhature, which came recommended by a group sitting near us. At $3.99, it was a nice little splurge and came with two pieces of what tasted very much like the kind of fried dough you’d find at a state fair. It was greasier than Paulie D’s hair, but it tasted damn good.
When the line evaporated and the place started to thin out, I asked the woman at the counter to write down what the special is on each day of the week (they are closed Tuesdays). None of what she wrote means a thing to me, but I’ve included a photo of what she wrote here in case you’d like to try to decode it. I’ve also included the restaurant’s menu, which isn’t available online, in case you’d like to Google these menu items before trying the place.
All in all, it was a tasty and economical outing. We learned that you could indeed eat out in Chicago for $3.49 at 2608 W. Devon Avenue. If you want a tasty, dirt-cheap lunch that comes with that pleasantly helpless feeling you get when out of the country, try it yourself.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]